What is Symbolism in Literature

What is symbolism in literature? If your students struggle to understand what constitutes symbolism in literature, this primer will help them interpret the sometimes cryptic references authors work into their text. Understanding symbolism will enhance your child's understanding of the deeper meanings behind written words.

What Is Symbolism in Literature?
Symbolism is when the author uses an object or reference to add deeper meaning to a story. Symbolism in literature can be subtle or obvious, used sparingly or heavy-handedly. An author may repeatedly use the same object to convey deeper meaning or may use variations of the same object to create an overarching mood or feeling. Symbolism is often used to support a literary theme in a subtle manner.

What Are Some Examples of Symbolism?
The following are common symbols used in literary works:

  • Symbols referring to damnation: Fire, flames, heat, hot temperatures
  • Symbols referring to salvation: Crosses, angels, haloes, clouds, churches
  • Symbols referring to reincarnation or reinvention: Phoenix rising from flames, crosses, rainbows, passing storms, dawn, sunrise, broken chains
  • Symbols referring to death or endings: Gravestones, cemeteries, Grim Reaper, Day of the Dead, skulls, candle blowing out, coffin, ringing of bell

What Are Common Cultural Symbols?
When looking for cultural symbols in literature, you'll want to think of what symbols represent moral standards, beliefs or patriotic themes for a culture or country. Here are some cultural symbols you might see:

  • American cultural symbols: Red, white and blue colors; Bald Eagle; coin with "In God We Trust"
  • Indian cultural symbols: yogi, banyan tree, image of Indian god or goddess  
  • Chinese cultural symbols: Bamboo tree, bonsai tree, yin/yang symbol

Sometimes cultural symbols are more specific to a particular cultural group. A mohawk haircut or an anarchy symbol indicate a punk rocker. Medals and swords symbolize a member of the military. Nets and ropes can symbolize a fisherman or sea captain.

How Do Writers Use Symbolism?
Writers insert symbols into their writing to allude to a feeling, mood or attitude without directly stating the perspective or mood intended. Symbolism is supplemental to the story.

Encourage your students to try using symbolism to supplement their work as they write short stories or poetry. Help them weave the symbols into the stories so that the symbols support the story line and mood, rather than sticking out like an obvious literary device.

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